Haitian immigration to the United States and Canada

Haitian immigration to the United States and Canada

Haitian immigrants certainly constitute a very visible segment of contemporary American society. This visibility is due to the fact that they have been steadily migrating in significant numbers to the United States since the late 1950s—early 1960s, soon after François Duvalier (“Papa Doc”) became president of Haiti. The political repression that characterized the Duvalier period forced large numbers of Haitians to seek safer harbor in the United States. Sustained political oppression, economic hardship, and lack of opportunity continued to drive contingents of Haitian immigrants out of their homeland all throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s (Zéphir 1996, 2001; Catanese 1999). In fact, Haitian immigration persists to the present day, as evidenced in the numerous reports of major news networks, such as those of CNN or the "New York Times", about the boat people disembarking on the Florida shores as recently as October 2002.1 The combination of push and pull factors led Haitians to cross the Caribbean Sea, by plane or by boat, legally or illegally, in order to reach the shores of America, the perceived land of opportunity, to begin new lives. An examination of the records of the Census Bureau as well as those of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) allows for reasonable inferences about the size of the legal Haitian population currently residing in the United States.2 However, estimates provided by community leaders who offer assistance to the illegal population as well suggest that the actual number of the Haitian diaspora is higher than that recorded in government documents. In short, there is good reason to believe that the Haitian diaspora in the United States exceeds 850,000, and according to community leaders may be close to 1 million.

Haiti in American Politics


New York City

New York City has the largest concentration of Haitians in the United States as well as the oldest established Haitian communities of the country. The conservative estimate of the legal Haitian population in the New York City Metropolitan Area, as recorded by INS is approximately 156,000. However, community leaders and directors of community centers, who come in constant contact with the illegal population, strongly believe that the actual number is closer to 400,000. This number includes the non-immigrant (temporary visitors, students, temporary workers and trainees) and undocumented entrants, as well as the legal population who does not bother to fill out the census forms for a variety of reasons. Moreover, the New York City Haitian population represents a very heterogeneous group, reflecting the various strata of Haitian society. Members of the middle class started migrating during the U.S. occupation in the 1920s and 1930s; at the time they established their enclaves in Harlem, where they mingled with African Americans and other Caribbean immigrants who were contributing to the Harlem Renaissance. Significant waves followed exponentially during the Duvalier era that started in 1957 and ended in 1986 with the ousting of Baby Doc. These waves were more heterogeneous than previous ones, as no single class of Haitians was immune from the Duvaliers’ dictatorship. To date, cohorts of Haitians continue to come to New York, many being sent for by relatives already established in the city.Haitians reside in all the boroughs.


The largest communities are found in Brooklyn where the legal population is placed at approximately 88,763, and in Queens where the number of Haitians is believed to be around 40,000. Members of the community who are of working-class background tend to establish their residence in Brooklyn, primarily in the neighborhoods of Flatbush, Crown Heights, East Flatbush, and Vanderveer; they are apartment dwellers. Middle-classHaitians who choose to stay in Brooklyn own brownstone homes in the Park Slope area and single family homes in the Midwood section.


Generally speaking, Haitians themselves consider the majority of their compatriots living in Queens to be mostly middle class. Members of this group enjoy ownership of their homes or cooperative apartments in the neighborhoods of Cambria Heights, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens, and Jamaica. Less privileged Haitians settle in the working-class neighborhoods of Jackson Heights; generally members of the professional community live in the more affluent section of Holliswood, and some move to the adjacent counties of Nassau and Suffolk which are parts of Long Island.

Other areas

In Manhattan, a small concentration of working-class Haitians (7%) congregates on the Upper West Side and Harlem. Some reside along Cathedral Parkway and in Washington Heights. Very few Haitians (less than 1%) establish their niches in the Bronx. In this discussion, it is also important to recall that Haitians have established communities in the neighboring counties of Westchester and Rockland that are included in the Greater New York Metropolitan Statistical Area. In fact, Spring Valley in Rockland County has a relatively large segment of the New York population, estimated at close to 20,000.

Ethnic visibility

The sheer number of Haitians in New York makes them a highly visible ethnic community. In their ethnic neighborhoods, Haitians have managed to visibly recreate the cultural habits of their homeland with the establishment of many ethnic businesses, such as music shops, grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries, bars, beauty and barber shops, travel agencies, shipping companies, money transfer companies, and a hodgepodge of other businesses, which prominently display their allegiances to their native country. Those are found all along Flatbush, Church, and Nostrand Avenues, as well as along Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn; on Linden, Farmers and Francis Lewis Boulevards, and Jamaica and Hillside Avenues in Queens. They are easily recognizable since many display signs written both in English and Haitian Creole (sometimes in French), such as Yoyo Fritaille, Le Manoir, Le Viconte, Haiti Parcel & Cargo Inc., and Bakery Creole. On intensely hot days, passersby strolling along these avenues and boulevards have their nostrils filled with the aromas of fried meats and plantains, and their ears with rhythms of Sweet Micky, Konpa, Zin, T-Vice, Carimi, Tabou Combo, and Boukman Eksperyans, to name some of the most celebrated musical groups and bands. Animated conversations in Haitian Creole can be heard, as members of the community “hang out” in those shops and businesses to discuss home politics and news, exchange gossip, find out what goes on in the community, and keep alive their various traditions, be they culinary, intellectual, literary, or artistic.


The legal population of Miami-Dade County, Florida, based on government records, is approximately 100,000. However, when one factors in the attested underrepresentation of the Census data, as well as the number of illegal immigrants, there is good reason to believe that community leaders and technocrats who work with the Haitian community are not wrong to place Haitian population at over 200,000. Miami is an interesting city in that it continuously replenishes itself with Haitian immigrants, in addition to a host of other ethnic groups from the Caribbean and Latin America. On the one hand, a large contingent of Haitians is unquestionably the boat people, who have been steadily pouring onto the southern Florida shores since the early 1970s.

Little Haiti

Haitians have established themselves in the Edison/Little River area of Miami, which eventually came to be referred to as Little Haiti. Once they are able, some end up moving out of Little Haiti to the neighboring municipality of North Miami, where a relatively large segment of Haitian immigrants of lower middle-class background relocates. On the other hand, Miami is also experiencing another wave of Haitian immigration, this time coming from the Northeast United States (New York and Boston), the Midwest (Chicago), and Montreal, Canada. This particular group of Haitians is composed mostly of middle-class individuals who, having worked assiduously for many years, have been able to save money and profit from the sale of their homes in order to relocate to Miami, where the cost of living is lower than that of Boston and New York and where the tropical weather and lifestyle are reminiscent of those of their native Haiti. This class of Haitians live in the middle-class sections of Miami Shores, North Miami Beach, El Portal, Miami Gardens, and the Southwest neighborhoods of Kendall and Coral Gables.

Irrespective of the presence of middle-class Haitians, Miami is considered the city that received (and continues to receive) the largest segment of lower-class Haitians, consisting of poor peasants from andeyò (countryside) and urban dwellers who were roaming the streets in search of lavi (life). Many of these Haitians found new lives in the Edison/Little River section of Miami, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, which the Whites deserted in the 1970s. Soon after, this area became known as Little Haiti, and is now one of the most recognizable Haitian communities in the United States. From north to south, Little Haiti extends from 84th Street to 36th Street; from west to east, it is ten blocks wide, stretching from 6th Ave, NW to 4th Ave, NE. It is crossed by two major north-south axes: Miami Avenue, and Second Avenue NE renamed Avenue Morrisseau-Leroy after the revered Haitian writer who championed the cause of Haitian Creole in literature, and who spent the later years of his life in Miami until his death in the late summer of 1998. The main thoroughfares that cross east/west are 36th, 54th, 62nd, and 79th Streets. Estimates of the population of Little Haiti vary from 40,000 to 55,000. Little Haiti is also considered one of the poorest areas of Miami-Dade County. The following figures were released by the Edison/Little River Neighborhood Planning Program (1994–96): The per capita income is $5,693, the median household income is $14,142, and close to half the population lives below poverty level. City government efforts are currently underway to revitalize the neighborhood, by creating long-term economic development, and improving housing and infrastructure. The City of Miami has established in Little Haiti a neighborhood service center (along with others throughout the metropolitan area), known as Neighborhood Enhancement Teams (NET) to address the social problems of the community.

Delray Beach

Delray Beach, Florida, has become the US town with the largest percentage Haitian population in the United States. More than just sheer numbers, the Haitian community also grew geographically, economically, and socially; extending itself while maintaining a relatively low profile in the community it has adopted as its own. This growth has paralleled the incredible economic turnaround of Delray Beach as a municipality. It represents the awakening of a community which for a long time has lived in the shadow of its larger neighbor in Miami. The impressive growth has also brought about some strains within the Haitian community and in the community’s interactions with the other residents of Delray Beach.

Ethnic visibility

Most of the Haitian businesses in Little Haiti are found along the major arterials mentioned above; like those of New York, they are unmistakably Haitian with names such as Bèl Fouchèt, Piman Bouk, Les Cousins, Libreri Mapou, and Cayard Market. They include restaurants, grocery stores, dry cleaning establishments, tailor and shoe repair shops, shipping and money transfer companies, botanicas (shops that sell mostly religious/spiritual objects, including Vodou artifacts), among others. Little Haiti is the heart of the Haitian community of Miami.


Next to the NYC/Connecticut/Massachusetts area, Philadelphia has also become home to a growing number of Haitians. Like many other groups, the lower cost of living in Philadelphia has attracted many immigrants who entered the US through New York. Unlike New York, the community is not centralized. There are large numbers of Haitians in North Philadelphia, Northeast, and some in other areas like Olney, East Mount Airy, and West Philadelphia. The conservative number of Haitians in Philadelphia is 30,000.


There are two elected Haitian-American official in the Chicago area, an alderman in Evanston, a suburb that straddles the city’s north side where many Haitian immigrants have settled.A senator in Chicago. Lionel Jean-Baptiste, an attorney in private practice, was elected on April 3, becoming the first Haitian-American in the state to hold public office. Of the 8,000 residents in his ward, only about a hundred are Haitian and only about 30 of them registered voters, but that hasn’t stopped Haitians throughout the region from claiming him as their own. Eighty percent of the financing for his campaign came from Haitian donors. Still, the community has had difficulty asserting itself.

Indeed, Illinois’ Haitian population of about 15,000 is much smaller than that of Haitian communities on the East Coast. There are about half a million Haitians in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut region, about 250,000 in Florida and about 70,000 in Massachusetts. Unlike those states, Illinois’ Haitian community is widely dispersed, with small enclaves of Haitian professionals, middle and working class people and poor, undocumented refugees scattered in small clusters in and around Chicago. There is not a Little Haiti neighborhood here, like in Miami, to act as a voting block.


Boston has attracted significant numbers of immigrants from Haiti for over forty years. This arrival over time of Haitians in Boston corresponded to several waves of migration that have come to the United States from the Caribbean country since the 1950s. The largest of these migratory waves in the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s flowed into the metropolitan New York area. Since the late 1970s, the largest destination has expanded to include South Florida. To characterize Boston-area Haitians as simply a smaller-scale version of the migration to New York – or, more recently, of South Florida - however, is misleading. Since their arrival to New England’s hub, Haitians in Boston have adopted some unique traits of their new home – and have adapted quite well to that new homeland. And today, as one of the Boston metropolitan area’s largest immigrant groups – perhaps its largest group - they are becoming key players in shaping that area’s future. Haitians have settled in various sections within the Boston city limits and its surrounding area. The location and diffusion of the population has mirrored the growth of the community. Highly concentrated in the city at first, Boston’s Haitians slowly expanded to neighboring municipalities and, most recently, to far-flung suburbs. There are, for example, significant numbers of the population in Brockton, Randolph and Stoughton. The area of greatest Haitian concentration in Boston proper is in Mattapan, followed by Dorchester, Hyde Park and Roxbury. Blue Hill Avenue is an important Haitian thoroughfare. The street runs through Roxbury and Dorchester, but it is along its last section, in Mattapan, that Boston’s Haitian ‘downtown’ is located. There, the street is dotted with several Haitian businesses. Many Haitian churches and organizations have their headquarters along Blue Hill Avenue also. On the north bank of the Charles River, Haitians settled in Cambridge in the 1950s and 60s. The population in this area now numbers approximately 7,500. Interestingly, although Haitians did not arrive in nearby Somerville until the early 1990s, the community there today is almost as large as the one in Cambridge. Currently, however, increasing costs of living in both Cambridge and Somerville are beginning to drive out people of modest means. The result has been the relocation of many of these area’s Haitians to the more affordable neighboring towns of Revere, Everett and Lynn.

Ethnic visibility

In the mind of most Americans, Boston is a city of politics, and politics in Boston is something dominated by its Irish population, particularly the legendary Kennedy family. In today’s city, however, where the traditionally powerful white population has recently become a minority, another immigrant group - Haitians - has found itself to be in a position to play an important role in building institutions, starting enterprises and building broad political coalitions with other groups. The strong organizational basis of the community is evident from the broad array of public and private entities that serve it. To those who have followed the community’s evolution, it has come as not much of a surprise that Haitians in Boston are now beginning to develop themselves into an emerging, local political force. A variety of entrepreneurial activities established from within the Haitian population have been highly successful in the Boston area. Activities focusing on food services (catering and restaurants), money transfer, tax preparation, and financial management are among the most common enterprises attracting interest and sustaining success. This is not surprising considering the needs of any recently arrived and rapidly growing population. Haitian entrepreneurs have established businesses through the Boston metro region. It is from Mattapan to Dorchester, on both sides of Blue Hill Avenue, however, where they are located in greatest profusion. Many of the area’s earliest immigrants from Haiti were skilled professionals who went on to become locally prominent lawyers, doctors and educators. In increasing numbers, Haitian immigrants are working in the region’s health care system, particularly as nurses. One community leader suggests that a visit to any nursing home in the Boston area, would uncover the fact that 75 percent of those working there are Haitian. Other common areas of employment among Boston’s Haitians include office positions with the high-tech companies located along Route 128, as well as positions as teachers in the area’s elementary and high schools.

The Haitian community in Boston, now almost 50 years old, has had to adjust to several waves of immigration, each bringing people with different socio-economic backgrounds, interests, and needs. Members of today’s community include a variety of generations and individuals that have had radically different life experiences, ranging from a 70 year-old man who arrived in the late 1950s to a 10 year-old, third generation child who has never been to Haiti. Finding the common ground among such diverse members of the population as these is one issue within the community as is another one, dictated at least in part by geography. As Haitians spread further and further throughout the Boston metropolitan area, they are in the process of becoming somewhat economically segmented, with the blue-collar, lower-middle class population in places like Mattapan or Somerville confronting quite different issues and challenges than the more white-collar, upper-middle class families moving to places like Randolph, on the outer fringes of the metropolitan area.


Presently, there is already a sizable Haitian community in Atlanta. And it is, indeed, growing at a rapid pace. Unlike most other Haitian-American centers, though, Atlanta does not have a central neighborhood where it is located. The community, like the city, is spread out considerably over a large area. To a certain extent this diffusion of the Haitian population has been a hindrance to the community’s ability to organize itself. At this moment, however, the tide seems to be turning, as a number of issues are galvanizing the community and bringing it closer together. Changes in the migration flows of Haitians to Atlanta, awareness of national-scale Haitian-American issues and the approaching bicentennial of Haiti’s independence are all factors contributing toward the solidification of Atlanta’s spread out Haitian population.

Ethnic visibility

The Haitian community is spread out over the large, greater metropolitan area of Atlanta. And, because there is no single area within the metropolitan vastness where Haitians have settled, there is no specific Haitian commercial area. Haitians live, work and shop throughout the greater Atlanta area which now includes the surrounding Gwinnett, Cobb, Douglas, Dekalb, and Clayton counties. Within those counties, they live, work, and shop in such towns as Lawrenceville, Smyrna, Marietta, Decatur and Austell. One of the areas of Haitian businesses within this great urban sprawl is on Moreland Avenue in Atlanta proper, where two Haitian-owned businesses face each other in a small shopping center. A number of Haitian businesses are located in Marietta, but not within a close range of each other. In addition, many new Haitians from the Northeast and Florida are relocating to the middle-class area of Gwinnett County in Lawrenceville. This area is establishing itself as the center of Haitian economic development in the Atlanta metropolitan area with a family friendly culture and atmosphere with great schools, parks, and shops.


Haitians in the Detroit area are not located in any single neighborhood or part of the city. The greatest concentration of Haitian families, however, is in Northwest Detroit, within an area bounded by Telegraph Road, the Southfield Freeway, 5 Mile Road and 8 Mile Road. Located within this general area is St. Gerard’s, one of two Roman Catholic churches attended by Detroit’s Haitians. Sacred Heart, the other, is located closer to downtown Detroit. Also not far from downtown, on Ferry Street in Detroit’s museum district near Wayne State University, is another key institution of the Haitian community, the Espoir Center for Caribbean Arts and Culture.

Washington, D.C.

Haitians in the metropolitan Washington area are found in the city and in outlying areas in Virginia and Maryland. Although Washington’s Haitians are scattered within the region, the single location with the heaviest concentration of Haitian-Americans is the suburban area of Silver Spring, Langley Park and Hyattsville, Maryland. As evidence of this fact, not only are such Haitian institutions as Yon-Yon’s catering business, but also one can occasional hear spoken Creole in shops and stores in this part of Montgomery County and in nearby Prince George's County.


In the 1950s, the Haitian population in Canada only numbered in the forties. The emigration of Haitians in more substantial numbers began with the bloody dictatorship of Francois Duvalier in the early 1960s. The Haitian diaspora, including all emigrants and their immediate descendants, is estimated to number close to 1 million. Many chose Canada as their new home, specifically Quebec, for linguistic and religious reasons. In coming to Canada, professional Haitians often had to bypass a Duvalier law forbidding them to leave Haiti. They frequently were forced to flee Haiti with false documents and with no legal proof of identity. Upon arrival in Canada they would declare their status as political refugees. The trend of French-speaking Haitian immigrants to Canada was to settle in Quebec -- 95% of them. By 1965, some 2,000 Haitians had arrived. The period covering the late 1960 through the 1970s saw a dramatic change in both the volume and background of Haitian immigrants. This was the beginning of the massive exodus in response to the Duvalier regime. Haitians were drawn to Canada because of its tolerant immigration laws - foreign visitors, arriving with only a tourist visas, could later apply for landed immigrant status while in Canada. Canada also held an Eden-like quality for the Haitians, an image painted by friends already in Quebec who sent reports home that employment was abundant and well-paid. From 1973 to 1976 an average of approximately 3,000 Haitians were admitted to Canada each year, with a peak of 4,750 in 1974. The settlement of Haitians in Canada by the end of the exodus was estimated to have reached 45,070, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada. 75 000 people born in Haiti arrived in Quebec between the years of 1961 and 2006 according to the community organization Maison d'Haiti based in Montreal.

Michaëlle Jean, the current Governor General of Canada, is a Haitian immigrant who came to Canada with her family at the age of 11.


The early Haitian immigrants, those who came between 1960 and 1970, were usually from the Haitian elite. They came from a comfortable life in terms of their social and professional status. Most were doctors, academics, teachers and pursued careers in the liberal professions. In 1965, Canada welcomed 38 Haitians in these fields. In 1966, the number increased to 42. Almost no Haitians of the working class emigrated over the same period. The Haitians of professional backgrounds received warm welcome in their new home. Their expertise was needed and they found work right away. Most had a level of education that was higher than that of the average Québécois. At the time, the medical, educational and civil service sectors of Quebec society were expanding. Haitians were in demand and filled a gap in the labour force.

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